Wines are like rock bands. A few are internationally renowned superstars that receive critical acclaim and command gargantuan fees for their dazzling performances. Others don’t get much attention from the mainstream, but have a cult following of devoted fans. And many are unfortunately destined to stock supermarket shelves, while maybe playing the occasional pub gig.
In this highly stratified market, a wine’s place in the hierarchy of fame and fortune is closely linked to the grape variety from which it is made. There are over 10,000 different grape varieties currently in existence, but a disproportionate number of superstar wines are made from just a small handful of them. The best wines produced from so-called ‘noble’ grapes such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are prized for their power, elegance and complexity, and these varieties have therefore been planted all over the world by producers hoping to capture a little piece of their magic. As a result, we are now afflicted with oceans of indifferent Chardonnay and jammy, one-note Pinot Noir, but the fact remains that these varieties are household names for a reason: Even if these grapes don’t always live up their billing, their highest expressions unquestionably stand at the apex of what the wine world has to offer.
Other grape varieties are much less widely planted, but have a certain niche appeal, which is at least partly driven by their obscurity and rarity. You probably won’t have heard of Juhfark from Hungary’s Somló region or Fer Servadou from Marcillac, but drinking wine made from these grape varieties will win you some vinous brownie points, at least among the kind of bearded geeks who populate hipster wine bars. If you can’t afford the price of admission for First Growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy (and not many of us can these days), then you can still flaunt your credentials as a connoisseur and bore your long-suffering friends by flaunting your encyclopaedic knowledge of these varieties. Any grape that can produce excellent wines that confer boasting rights and remain affordable to non-plutocrats is a definite winner in my book!
Underdog grapes are not prestigious enough to attract the big spenders and too widely planted to really capture the interest of the wine geeks. These are the workhorses of the wine world, which generally meet an undignified end on the bottom shelves of the supermarkets. Italy’s Trebbiano (known as Ugni Blanc in France) is one such unloved grape variety. Due to its high acidity and relatively neutral character, it is rarely vinified as a single-varietal wine, but finds its way into a lot of affordable blends or is distilled into brandy. Similarly, Germany’s Müller-Thurgau is mostly relegated to low-priced blends, tarnished as it is by its historical association with kitsch and sickly Liebfraumilch. When it comes to climbing wine’s greasy pole of prestige, some grape varieties just can’t get a break.
As fashions in wine come and go, grape varieties can move back and forth between these categories. Gamay was once a widely maligned grape and the epitome of a workhorse variety, partly because it was supposedly banned from being planted in Burgundy, and partly due to the near-ubiquity of insubstantial, short-lived Beaujolais Nouveau in the 1980’s. However, it has achieved a new lease of life in the hands of talented young winemakers, who have transformed Beaujolais into the beating heart of the natural wine movement. These days, all the cool kids are drinking Julien Sunier and Yvon Métras, and wines such as Marcel Lapierre’s Morgon and Jean Foillard’s Morgon Côte du Py are superstars in their own right. The Mission grape (also known as Pais in Chile) is another grape that once had a poor reputation. Its pale colour and lack of concentration made it extremely unfashionable in a wine scene that valued rich and full-bodied reds. But as the trend for light, easy-drinking, low tannin wines took hold, Mission began its resurgence and was slowly rehabilitated in the eyes of the wine cognoscenti. Although it has yet to produce any superstar wines, I’ve recently had a couple of very good examples, which have led me to put it on my list of varieties to watch in the coming years.
The concept of a varietal hierarchy is not restricted to the world of wine. Cider also has a pecking order of varieties. This is much less clearly defined and stratified than in the wine industry, and the price gap between the most expensive and the cheapest ciders is comparatively small. Cider’s relative lack of stratification tends to collapse the distinction between niche appeal and underdog status: It is a sad but undeniable fact that the overwhelming majority of apple varieties are underappreciated and little-discussed. Having said that, it’s quite easy to name the most celebrated varieties. Dabinett, Kingston Black and Yarlington Mill are undoubtedly superstars, which are all highly esteemed for their ability to produce powerful, long-lived and well-balanced ciders. I’m sure that Adam would argue that Foxwhelp also belongs in this category [rank presumption – Ed] but I think that it’s just too divisive to sell out stadiums. It’s an apple with a very vocal and enthusiastic fanbase, but it’s more Death Metal than Ariana Grande! Discovery and Egremont Russet are surely the stars of England’s East Coast, which are increasingly being used further afield, including by such preeminent producers as Little Pomona. I believe that this is a clear testament to their ability to produce outstanding ciders.
At present, having niche appeal in the cider scene means slotting into a very small niche indeed. Diehard fans of Brown Snout and Bulmer’s Norman probably number in the single figures. However, I think that it’s nonetheless possible to tentatively identify some apple varieties that are sufficiently distinctive and exciting to potentially develop a cult following. Tremlett’s Bitter and Chisel Jersey are the guttural growls to Foxwhelp’s piercing shrieks and obvious choices for lovers of high tannin. Harry Masters’ Jersey is similarly appealing to those who enjoy the heftier side of cider. Some sharp Spanish apple varieties, such as Prieta and Raxao, surely have the ability to entice Foxwhelp fans, and I’m surprised that the juicy, Tutti Frutti character of Somerset Redstreak has not yet propelled it to the highest peak of popularity.
In my view, some apples are less likely to develop a fervent following than others, even as the cider scene evolves and we arrive at a better understanding of the aromas, flavours and textures that different varieties have to offer. Bramley, for example, is the Trebbiano of the cider world. With its high acidity and relatively neutral flavour profile, it forms the backbone of many a blend, but is rarely given the opportunity to shine as a single variety (although James has reviewed a couple of single-varietal Bramley ciders in this article). It’s an extremely versatile apple, which invokes a certain pudding-based nostalgia, but it’s probably too neutral-tasting to readily inspire devotion.
If Bramley is cider’s Trebbiano, then Falstaff is its Müller-Thurgau. This apple variety is soft, floral and low in acidity, and has a tendency to taste a little soapy. It is often used to counterbalance the high acidity of some culinary and dessert apples, but it typically lacks enough acid of its own to avoid flabbiness when bottled as a single variety (I regard Welsh Mountain Cider’s excellent single-variety Falstaff as the exception that proves this rule). It’s hard to see Falstaff ever commanding the admiration of Dabinett or Discovery, although it can be delicious when incorporated into a blend.
Reality is generally messier than the categories that we apply to it, and every classification system has its limits and shortcomings. It is therefore unsurprising that some grape and apple varieties don’t neatly fit into my rock band system of classification, especially seeing as it just happened to pop into my head after a couple of ciders! Every wine lover knows that Merlot is the primary component of some of Bordeaux’s most revered and expensive wines, which should qualify it for superstar status, but there are some good reasons to call this prestige into question. In its spiritual homeland, Merlot is infrequently vinified as a single-varietal wine, because it usually lacks the structure needed to achieve greatness in its unblended form. Vast swathes of Merlot vines are planted all over the world, but the wines that they produce seldom reach the heady heights achieved in Pomerol and St. Emilion. To be brutally honest, I don’t think that I’m alone in finding a lot of single-varietal Merlot rather dull and insipid. It seems to be a grape that shines brightest in Bordeaux blends (and to a lesser extent in Chilean wines), and that serves as a workhorse almost everywhere else.
In the cider world, Browns has a similarly ambiguous status to Merlot. This sharp apple variety is very widely planted all over the West Country and finds its way into some of the region’s best ciders. Most producers agree that Browns is a good cider apple, although I have yet to hear anyone describe it as their favourite. It has the benefit of being a heavy cropper and its zesty, lemony acidity contributes freshness to a cider, usefully compensating for the low acidity of many bittersweet apple varieties. It also has naturally high sugar levels for a sharp and can therefore be used to beef up the ABV of a blend. These desirable qualities have resulted in its being accorded superior or ‘vintage’ status. However, Browns has two notable deficiencies, which mean that it is not often made into a single-varietal cider: It can lack body, and its acidity is too high for some tastes (although nowhere near Foxwhelp levels). Most single-varietal Browns ciders that I have encountered have therefore been sweetened, which can sometimes result in the apple’s personality being overwhelmed.
Today, I’ll be tasting a couple of unsweetened single-varietal Browns ciders, in the hope of better getting to grips with this variety’s personality. The first cider that I’ll be tasting is Charnwood’s 2019 Browns, which Adam reviewed last year, but which I haven’t yet had the opportunity to try. The 2019 vintage is no longer available from The Cat in the Glass, but I have it on good authority that the 2021 vintage is going to be bottled in the near future. In my experience, Charnwood is an excellent producer that merits our attention. Its owner, Rob Clough, is passionate about making dry, single-variety ciders, which are frequently thrilling expressions of his fruit and terroir. If you are interested in finding out more about Charnwood and the other ciders in their range, then this piece from Adam is well worth a read.
Charnwood, Browns, 2019: 7.3% – review
How I served: Chilled.
Appearance: Bright gold, with moderate to high carbonation and barely a trace of sediment.
On the nose: A walk through a lemon grove on the Amalfi Coast. I get limoncello, citronella candles and sherbert lemons, accompanied by some crisp green apples and sappy undertones of pine resin. I also detect a little dry straw and maybe the merest touch of new plastic, although this is far from obtrusive or unpleasant. A crisp, bright and precise nose, if perhaps lacking in the complexity that characterises the very greatest ciders.
In the mouth: Definitely on the more bracing end of the acidity spectrum. The zesty sharpness of freshly squeezed lemon juice immediately asserts itself, along with more green apples and some oyster shell minerality. This has an excellent concentration of flavour for Browns and the mouthfeel isn’t thin, although it’s far from viscous. There is no real tannin to speak of, but the finish tingles with the brininess of sea spray and just a touch of apple core astringency.
In a nutshell: A sprightly, vivacious mouthful of lemony goodness, with just enough mineral complexity to keep things interesting. A perfect palate cleanser or thirst quencher on a hot summer’s day.
The second cider that I’ll be trying today is Ross on Wye’s 2019 Browns. Anyone who writes about cider in the UK has probably run out of superlatives to describe Ross on Wye. I’m no exception, but suffice to say that pouring a Ross on Wye cider always feels like a special occasion, despite the fact that their 500ml bottles are such astonishingly good value.
Ross on Wye, Browns, 2019: 5.8% – review
How I served: Chilled.
Appearance: Almost indistinguishable from Charnwood’s Browns, but with a slightly lower level of carbonation and a little more flaky sediment.
On the nose: Warmer and less high-toned than Charnwood’s version: Yellow apples and preserved lemons are enticingly interwoven with honeysuckle and dried apricot, undergirded by that slatey minerality that is so typical of Ross on Wye. There is a very slight hint of reduction, but it’s not unpleasantly sulphurous and maybe even adds to the aromatic complexity of this cider. The overall effect is strongly reminiscent of perry made from Oldfield or Hendre Huffcap, although it is a touch more dilute on the nose than the very best expressions of these pear varieties.
In the mouth: Brighter on the palate than on the nose, but with softer and more rounded acidity than Charnwood’s Browns. Fresh green apples, wildflower honey and a little lemon oil give way to a tangy burst of salinity on the finish. I detect a little grassiness and light floral tones in the background, alongside Seville oranges and more of those delicious dried apricots. Like many perries, this cider has a fine-knit, filigree texture that makes it immediately moreish. It is featherweight in style, but coaxes a good depth of flavour and an exceptional level of complexity from what can sometimes be a rather one-dimensional apple variety.
In a nutshell: This cider gives the lie to the notion that Browns only offers citric acidity and simple flavours. A multifaceted if somewhat atypical Browns from one of Britain’s most distinguished cider makers.
If Browns is Merlot in terms of its status, then it has to be Melon de Bourgogne in terms of its flavour profile. This variety, which is chiefly known as the grape of the Loire’s Muscadet appellation, is generally described as fairly neutral in character. Its simpler expressions can lack aromatic complexity and intensity of flavour, yet they nonetheless please us with their precise, linear expression of citrus, apple and sea minerals. Muscadet is rarely a ‘flavour bomb’ that grabs our attention at a tasting or inspires reverence and awe at its concentration and depth, but its crackling energy is perhaps the perfect partner for fresh seafood and a daytrip to the seaside. Like Muscadet, most single-varietal Browns ciders require a suitable occasion to shine, but are practically unbeatable if you pick the right moment. For the ultimate Browns experience, go to a quaint seaside town, order some raw oysters on ice and crack open a bottle as you watch the waves lapping at the shore. I can almost guarantee that you’ll find yourself on cloud nine. Failing that, it’s very nice sipped in the garden, while you pick at a packet of prawns that you hastily bought at the supermarket!
While Muscadet can be a straightforward wine, the best examples surprise us with their intricate textures and unusual depth of flavour. In the right hands, Browns can also become more than just a casual summer sipper. Charnwood’s version is laser-like in its focus and persistence, and dials up the citrus and salinity to quite a remarkable extent. I expect that it has enough fruit and acidity to age pretty well. In my first ever article for Cider Review, I wrote that Ross on Wye has “the uncanny ability to wring improbable flavours from apples like some kind of pomological alchemist”, and I still stand by that statement today. Ross on Wye’s Browns stays true to form in the sense that it is a bit of an outlier, which displays significantly more honeyed and stone fruit flavours and a much finer texture than the average Browns. I can only speculate that this increased level of detail and complexity might be what happens when a producer privileges terroir over varietal typicity, but I find myself clutching at straws when I try to explain how Ross on Wye produces such consistently impressive ciders.
Today’s tasting has given me a newfound appreciation for Browns and the diversity of flavours and textures that it can express. It may not quite have the ‘wow factor’ required of a true superstar, but it has enough personality and verve to be viewed as more than a humble support act. Over the course of the summer, I will aim to keep my fridge well-stocked with Browns, to accompany impromptu trips to the beach or provide much-needed refreshment during a heatwave. We all need a bit of zing in our lives, and Browns has zing in abundance, along with the potential to capture our interest and occasionally astonish us with unexpected levels of complexity or persistence. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a compelling enough reason to conclude that Browns deserves more respect and admiration than it currently receives.